'We need places like this': LGBTQ refugees find support at Toronto church
Church services, information sessions and supports for refugee claimants have gone virtual since March
As a child growing up in Colombia, Hernan Sierra remembers hiding under his desk at school to avoid gunfire between warring paramilitary groups and gangs nearby.
Since then, he's helped provide consulate legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in Chile for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
He later returned to Colombia to help keep children and youth from being recruited by gangs like the ones that sowed violence where he grew up.
But as a gay man, he became a target, too. Now he's the one who needs help.
"I came to Canada as a refugee. I'm a refugee claimant right now. You know, I had my hearing. It was denied," Sierra said.
He is currently working on his appeal with the help of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCC Toronto), a progressive protestant community that opens its doors to the LGBT community.
Through the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership, working within the Private Sponsorship Program and the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program, the church said it has privately sponsored 57 LGBT refugees, who were persecuted in their home country because of their sexual identity, by the end of 2019. It has provided other support to over 4,000 LGBT refugee claimants since 2007.
"This is a tremendously extraordinary group of people; these are a group of survivors. These people have stories that I could not have imagined going through," said Aleks Dughman-Manzur, director of the LGBTQ+ Refugee Programs at MCC Toronto and vice-president of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Sierra registered for assistance from MCC Toronto in August 2017, a few months before first arriving in Canada. Initially skeptical whether the community would help him, he found himself overwhelmed with emotion at the first church service he attended.
"I [said] to myself, 'Oh my God, we need places like this.' It's a good practice to show to the rest of the world," he said.
COVID-19 stalls arrivals
According to its website, MCC Toronto's LGBTQ+ Refugee Programs advocate "at all levels of government for the advancement of refugee rights, and in particular, the rights of LGBTQ+ refugees and protected persons."
In addition to private sponsorship of LGBT refugees, MCC Toronto makes a formal one-year commitment to applicants, providing them with resources and support to resettle in Toronto.
It also offers weekly information sessions on the refugee hearing process, workshops and one-on-one support.
"Of course, you end up making a lifelong commitment to that person's well-being [as well]," Dughman-Manzur said.
All of MCC Toronto's church services, information sessions and supports for refugee claimants and sponsored refugees have gone virtual since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With nearly all travel in and out of Canada halted, Dughman-Manzur said that "almost no new" refugees have been able to cross the border to file a claim.
"[Sponsored refugees] who were visa-ready and had a travel date schedule, were not able to travel and had to remain in their first country of asylum with uncertainty," they said.
The federal government's website says it is working with organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency to help facilitate refugees' resettlements while multiple international travel restrictions remain in place.
Earlier in September, MCC Toronto was able to receive one couple whose visas were ready in March, but had their travel halted due to COVID-19 restrictions, said Dughman-Manzur.
"Once travel resumed, we were able to welcome this couple, following strict COVID-19 protocols for quarantining."
'I just have to start a new life here'
Gloria Chidinma has been volunteering at MCC Toronto's virtual Sunday services, and speaks at information sessions for newcomers to the LGBTQ+ Refugee Programs.
It's her way of giving back to the community who helped her in her time of need.
In 2018, Chidinma, who is gay, fled her home in Nigeria to avoid arrest and imprisonment.
Gay sex is illegal in Nigeria and several other African countries, including Uganda and Ghana. Nigeria's Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act — nicknamed the "Jail the Gays" law — was introduced in 2014 and convictions carry a maximum jail sentence of 14 years.
In late 2018, Chidinma went to a party being held by her then-girlfriend's co-worker. The two had kept their relationship a secret.
But police raided the party, looking for the couple, Chidinma said, suspecting that a family friend may have leaked information of their relationship to authorities.
"I had to flee for my life because police in my country are not nice. They are brutal," she said.
Chidinma said she was separated from her partner while escaping the party. After staying with different friends and family for a few days — the police never far behind — she decided her only choice was to seek asylum in North America.
Soon after reaching Canada, she learned that her partner in Nigeria had been jailed.
"From that moment, I knew my life is over in Nigeria. There's no way I can go back. I just have to start a new life here," she recalled.
In January 2019, after months of living in a shelter feeling "forsaken" and "abandoned" by God, she connected with MCC Toronto where she found a community to help her heal from her loneliness and isolation.
"MCC is a place that welcomes everyone, irregardless of your religion, irregardless of your sexuality," she said.
"I don't know [how] I would have coped without this place because I don't have anybody to talk with. So I come here, and talk with people, laugh and I involve myself in the program and I've learned a lot."
Transition and reinvention
Today, Aleks Dughman-Manzur helps people who come to MCC Toronto looking for both emotional and procedural help.
Before coming out as transmasculine, Dughman-Manzur was a female-presenting lesbian. They explored what religion and spirituality meant to them — and found the common answers and advice wanting.
"I felt accepted and loved and profoundly held [by God], but I did not feel accepted, loved and profoundly held by my [Chilean] spiritual community of that time. And so I knew that I had to leave the church."
They later joined a Chilean branch of MCC.
After moving to Canada on a scholarship and obtaining a graduate degree in law at the University of Toronto, they continued their work with MCC at the downtown Toronto church.
Dughman-Manzur, who is a Palestinian Christian born in Chile, said their family's experiences of migration and displacement are an important driving force of their work today.
They said they have a "beautiful" relationship with their family, who helped support them through "every crazy idea" and "every transition" in life.
However, being away from home helped them take the steps to becoming themselves fully, they said. It was in Canada, for example, where Dughman-Manzur began to transition from female to transmasculine, using gender-neutral pronouns.
"Even if you come from a place where you could do all these explorations on your own, I've always found that being far away from your origins gives you a perspective that is different and allows you to reinvent yourself," Dughman-Manzur said.
Written by Jonathan Ore. Tapestry's documentary "No Going Back" was produced by Rosie Fernandez and Trevor Green, with Erin Noel.
- This story has been updated with additional details about MCC Toronto's LGBTQ+ refugee program as well as Aleks Dughman-Manzur's personal experience.Sep 29, 2020 3:20 PM ET